Android is all about choices, and nowhere is this more clear than your home screen. Not only can you choose what you do and do not want on your home screen, but you can choose which launcher app runs that home screen. There's no shortage of launchers trying their hardest to be the one that you call your home... screen. Some are simple inside and out, others offer a myriad of options and customizations. Some are geared towards function rather than form, but the best launchers keep both in mind.
Launchers are important, because each has its own specific quirks, limitations, and methods. Setting a theme in Nova Launcher is different than setting a theme in Buzz Launcher. Folders work differently in Action Launcher 3 than they do in Hola Launcher. So let's run down the options together and find the best launcher and theming options for you!
1. For the novice, the expert, and everyone in between: Nova Launcher
If there is a hierarchy of theming launchers, Nova Launcher has to be near the top if not king of the mountain. Nova Launcher has millions of fans worldwide, and it routinely places in polls about launchers. In fact, you can seldom mention customization or launchers in an article on this site without Nova coming up, if not in the article then in the comments. Nova is the launcher with something for everyone — and it's quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to Android.
If you want to keep things simple, Nova will get out of your way and let you do that. If you need sub-grid positioning and tons of gesture controls, Nova will do that, too. Nova will also import your current setup from almost any launcher you're coming from, meaning that you don't have to start from scratch.
Nova's a versatile launcher, and offers a bounty of options to the budding themer, including home screen gestures, folder gestures, separately-set home screen icons (both for apps and folders) and granular icon controls, variable home screen/app drawer/dock grids, sub-grid positioning, app drawer folders and tabs, and one of the easiest backup/restore functions in a launcher today, especially for multi-device users. That's a huge features list, those are only the highlights of what Nova can do. The beauty of Nova is that even with all of those features, the launcher makes itself straightforward for new users, easing you into its functions until you're ready to start playing with the more advanced tools.
Nova Launcher is free, but to unlock many of the more refined features we take advantage of while theming you'll want to upgrade to Nova Launcher Prime, which is well worth its $4.99 price tag. And if you happen to catch it on sale, just pull the trigger.
2. For the drawer-lovers and material goodness: Action Launcher 3
It's no secret Action Launcher has been an editor favorite around Android Central. We've even made the argument before that's Action Launcher is the only launcher worth using. That's because Action Launcher is a launcher that gets right down to business, and appeals to a lot of users that want to do the same. But this focus on function doesn't mean that Action Launcher is a slouch when it comes to form.
In fact, Action Launcher's an interesting animal as a theming launcher. Thanks to Quicktheme, once you set your wallpaper, you can automatically set colors for elements like the Google Search bar, the Quickdrawer, and folder backgrounds based on the colors in your wallpaper. If you have a wallpaper with a lot of colors, or one with a small amount of accent color you were hoping to match, there's a chance your desired color won't be among the palate. If that happens, try setting the wallpaper zoomed in on the colors you want, setting your Quicktheme colors, and then switching back to your full wallpaper.
Two of Action Launcher's standout features — Shutters and Covers — can be appealing to some themers for the ease with which they can clean up a home screen and help present a more minimalistic theme. Shutters allow you swipe up from an icon on your home screen to open a widget for that app. If you have a widget that clashes with your theme, or a widget that you don't need to see all the time, Shutters give you the convenience of having the widget without actually having it clutter up your screen.
Then we have Covers, which can be a bit of a double-edged sword when theming. See, many launchers like Nova and Apex allow you to set a custom icon or image for folders on your home screen. In Action Launcher — whose icon-picking menu was recently overhauled — you have two options for the look of your folder: a folder icon with your first three apps, or a Cover, which will look like the first app in that folder, and when tapped will take you to that icon. If you have Covers enabled, you have to swipe on that app to open the folder.
This can be great, because folders on the home screen and dock will be themed whenever you change your icon pack. This can also be not so great, since in order to set a custom image for a folder pic, you need to have the Cover enabled and set the image as the app icon for the cover app.
Gestures are key in Action Launcher. And if gestures figure greatly into your themes or your workflow, Action Launcher may be a perfect match.
3. For bare-bones theming on bare-bones phones: Hola Launcher
Hola Launcher is a relatively new launcher, rising through the launcher ranks thanks to its emphasis on size and efficiency. Hola Launcher is only a 3.4MB download — that's smaller than most MP3s. That means Hola is a launcher that will fit and run on phones that are severely lacking in space and memory, and even has a shortcut right on the home screen for clearing up RAM called Hola Boost. So even if your phone is slow and old and running out of space, you too can try out a new launcher and some simple themes.
We say simple themes because simple is the name of the game in Hola, and that extends to the theming options, but there is enough here for themers with minimalistic tendencies.
There are no custom folder icons, no individually-set icons, only 4 home screen grid options, and a maximum 6 apps/folders on the dock. But with Hola you can still resize widgets, set a custom icon pack, add and remove screens, and you can try out some basic Hola Gesture controls
If you just want to dip your toe in the theming pool, here's a good place to start, especially if your phone is little too old or slow for more powerful launchers. Just get rid of the 'extras' that Hola tries to sneak in like Top Sites, Lucky, and Hola Games and you'll be on your way.
4. For customizing all the things: Apex Launcher
Apex Launcher is a full-featured and highly-customizable launcher with a sizable following. Launcher fans usually mention Apex the same sentence, if not the same breath, as Nova Launcher. And while Nova and Apex are quite similar — especially when compared to the rest of the launchers here — don't you get any ideas about them being the same launcher with a different accent color.
Apex has a customizable grid — up to 10x10 — on the home screen, and it can be independently set between Portrait and Landscape. If you choose to use this, keep in mind that the top X number of rows will be the ones displayed in landscape, and place your widgets accordingly. You don't have sub-grid placement in Apex, but Pro unlock the ability to overlap widgets. You have options for changing the margins on the edge of the home screen and dock, but not the padding on widgets.
You can customize the app drawer several ways, including options for paginated, continuous, or list app drawers. You can also set Kit Kat or Lollipop icons if your theme's icon pack is something you want to limit to the home screen, and the ability to sort apps into tabs and folders in Apex Pro.
Folder icons are customizable as well, but you can only set gestures for dock icons/folders in Apex Pro. Icons can be set as a pack or individually and scaled to a degree, but the dock isn't quite as forgiving of large icons. Using Glim, no matter how we scaled icons down, the sides of my round icons were cut off.
Apex allows you to download themes from Google Play, and to mix and match them for the best icons, skin, and font. There's have a modest selection of gesture controls available in the free version, with more becoming available once you go Pro. When backing up your setup in Apex, you can independently backup your Apex Settings and your Desktop data (setup).
If a more advanced theme engine with a greater degree of granular control is what you're after, and the ability to backup your launcher settings independently of your current layout, give Apex a try.
5. For ready-made themes: Buzz Launcher
Themes are hard work. Bringing your elements together in a setup that fits both your style and your workflow takes time, and more than a little tinkering. It's not for everyone, but for users that want a theme they can pick out of a gallery and set on their device, Buzz Launcher has got you covered.
When you first open Buzz, you're not given the option to import your current layout from another launcher, or even the option to start completely from scratch. Instead, Buzz gives you a list of default themes which you can choose from as a jumping-off point. After selecting and implementing that theme, you'll be able to alter the layout to your needs and configure the widgets used in that theme… after you download the app they came from.
Widgets in Buzz Launcher's various themes can come from a number of apps, but the one most often used will be the free Buzz Widget. You can often configure which app interacts with a particular widget, such as a music widget, calendar widget, or a clock widget, and resize/reconfigure the widgets as needed to fit your particular take on the theme you've selected.
Buzz Launcher gets a bit odd when it comes to icons and docks. While you can have up to a 12x12 home screen, the dock can only hold five apps/folders/shortcuts. This, combined with a lack of real icon size scaling, means than things can get a little odd if you use the provided dock instead of just turning it off and setting your own dock at the bottom of each page. The icon picker in Buzz steers you towards its own internal icon packs, which isn't that unusual. What does make it off-putting is the process for applying an icon from a Play Store pack, which is the same method as setting a custom image. If you want to use a Google Play icon pack, you'll have to set each and every app icon individually.
But Buzz isn't a launcher for people who really want to mess about with their themes. It's for users who want to pick a theme out of the great and growing Homepack theme community, adapt a few icons/widgets to match their needs, and get on with their life.